Blogs > Liberty and Power > George Monbiot: “My heroes are driven by God, but I'm glad my society isn't”

Oct 12, 2005 1:08 am

George Monbiot: “My heroes are driven by God, but I'm glad my society isn't”

George Monbiot, writing in Tuesday’s Guardian, asks whether religious societies are better than secular ones and summarizes new findings that murder, venereal disease and marital breakdown are all more common in religious cultures.

First he explains that the only two heroes he has met are both Catholic missionaries, Joe Haas and Frei Adolfo. “If they did not believe in God, these men would never have taken such risks for other people.” Then he continues, “Remarkably, no one, until now, has attempted systematically to answer the question with which this column began. But in the current edition of the Journal of Religion and Society, a researcher called Gregory Paul tests the hypothesis, propounded by evangelists in the Bush administration, that religion is associated with lower rates of ‘lethal violence, suicide, non-monogamous sexual activity and abortion’. He compared data from 18 developed democracies, and discovered that the Christian fundamentalists couldn't have got it more wrong.”

He quotes Gregory Paul. “In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion ... None of the strongly secularised, pro-evolution democracies is experiencing high levels of measurable dysfunction.” Within the US, “the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and midwest” have “markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the north-east where ... secularisation, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms”.

Monbiot then claims that “[t]hree sets of findings stand out: the associations between religion - especially absolute belief - and juvenile mortality, venereal disease and adolescent abortion. Paul's graphs show far higher rates of death among the under-fives in Portugal, the US and Ireland and put the US - the most religious country in his survey - in a league of its own for gonorrhea and syphilis. Strangest of all, for those who believe that Christian societies are ‘pro-life’, is the finding that ‘increasing adolescent abortion rates show positive correlation with increasing belief and worship of a creator ... Claims that secular cultures aggravate abortion rates (John Paul II) are therefore contradicted by the quantitative data’.”

He then asks whether it’s fair to blame all this on religion. He observes that the nations that do well in Paul's study also have higher levels of social spending and distribution than those which do badly, and asks whether this is a cause or an association? As a libertarian, I’m not persuaded that this is a cause. However, it does appear that the broad trend is clear and in Paul’s words, “The more secular, pro-evolution democracies have ... come closest to achieving practical ‘cultures of life’.”

Monbiot admits that he doesn’t know whether these findings can be extrapolated to other countries and other issues. “[T]he study doesn't look, for example, at whether religious belief is associated with a nation's preparedness to go to war (though I think we could hazard a pretty good guess) or whether religious countries in the poor world are more violent and have weaker cultures of life than secular ones. Nor—because, with the exception of Japan, the countries in his study are predominantly Christian or post-Christian—is it clear whether there's an association between social dysfunction and religion in general or simply between social dysfunction and Christianity.”

He concludes, “However, if we are to accept the findings of this one—and so far only—wide survey of belief and human welfare, the message to those who claim in any sense to be pro-life is unequivocal. If you want people to behave as Christians advocate, you should tell them that God does not exist.”

I understand what George Monbiot is saying although I wouldn’t choose to word it that way. After all, it isn’t only Christians who desire a society free of murder, venereal disease, and marital breakdown. Nonetheless, the research he cites does suggest that Christian belief (or is it Christian fundamentalist belief?) is not only unnecessary for the achievement of a better society and is also a baleful influence on our lives. As an atheist, I welcome those findings. However, I certainly don’t think they or many more like them would ever or should ever conclude the debate on God’s existence.

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Kenneth R Gregg - 10/13/2005

It may be more than this. All states are fundamentally secular in the Western world. That the polls indicate there are more Christians in one area than another does not indicate a theocratic state, merely that there is a conflict between the general public's beliefs and that of the nature of the state in those areas (which may lead to the conlusions in the above-noted study).

We don't have a Calvinist, Lutheran or Catholic state in the sense of, say, the 16th century early modern states, which would constitute theocratic models, any more than we have 12th century Catholic states in existence today, which would be a better comparison for purposes of analysis.

Anyway, that's my off-the-top-of-my-head opinion.

Just a thought.
Just Ken